Left, strikes a theme familiar to us all. A therapist goes on vacation for a week and returns to an angry, defensive patient.
LeAnn has been sitting across from me for at least five minutes, staring down at her hands, occasionally raising her cobalt blue eyes to scowl at me. I have made several attempts to ask her what’s going on, but have been met with silence or another scowl.
“Are you angry with me because I was gone for a week?” I ask.
“I almost didn’t come today,” she responds.
“I guess you’re angry with me.”
I continue, “I understand that separations are hard for you, LeAnn, that you have lots of feelings about being left. You’re frightened that I won’t come back, just like your mother didn’t come back.”
LeAnn’s eyes fill with tears. Fiercely, she brushes them away. “I’m such a baby! I’m 28 years old, not five. Besides she didn’t mean to leave, she died! Why can’t I get that through my head!? And you’re not my mother. It shouldn’t be a trauma for me to have you leave for a week.”
“You notice, LeAnn, that first you were angry at me and now you’re angry with yourself. I wonder why you have to be angry with someone.”
“What’s the alternative? It has to be someone’s fault. You left me and that’s your fault and it bothers me and that’s my fault. If it didn’t bother me, you could go on as many vacations as you’d like and I wouldn’t care one way or the other.”
“Except that’s asking yourself to be like a robot, to have no feelings about anything, to make your past disappear and not affect you in the present.”
“Yeah! That would be a great idea. Not having the past affect me. Wait a minute, you mean I’m doing all this therapy and I’m still going to fall apart every time anyone I care about goes away for a few days? That would be pretty pointless.”
“Well, let’s look at that. What did you feel when I left for a week?”
“Mad. Like how dare you leave me when you know I need you, when you know how hard it is for me.”
“Okay. Did you feel anything besides mad?”
“Why don’t you just tell me what you’re after?”
“I guess you’re still mad.”
She sighs deeply, rolling her eyes.
Despite LeAnn’s provocativeness, I don’t feel angry with her. Her scared, powerless child-self is so glaringly apparent. “I think anger is easy for you. It’s the feelings underneath that are more difficult – sadness, fear, vulnerability.”
“Those all sound charming.”
“As I said, anger is your easy go to. But think about yourself as that little child. Your parents go on vacation, leave you with an aunt you don’t particularly like. Your father comes home alone. He tries to explain to you that your Mom had an accident, that she fell from the balcony of their hotel room, that the railing gave way. That would be a lot for an adult to take in let alone a five year-old child. And then your father himself becomes unavailable, never really coming back from his grief. You’re all alone. How could you not feel overwhelmed by fear and sadness?”
“And this will help me how?”
“As long as you defend against your feelings of sadness and fear with your anger, you can never really complete the mourning process. The five year-old child in you needs to feel all your feelings so that you can move beyond them, so that you can truly know that although you may feel sad and scared as an adult, you won’t feel it with the same desperation as that five year-old. You won’t feel as though you can’t survive. You won’t feel that your very life is threatened when I or your boyfriend or whomever leaves. You can never predict what will happen, you may not have someone to blame, but you’ll know that you can indeed survive whatever happens.”
“That sounds like a pretty story, but how do I know it will work like that? What if I let myself feel all those feelings and all that happens is that I’m stuck there, stuck as that five year-old forever? That scares the shit out of me. As it is, I’m a mess when you leave for a week. I don’t want to be a sniveling baby forever.”
“I understand that it’s scary, LeAnn, but not feeling all the feelings involved in mourning is much more likely to keep you stuck than daring to let yourself dive into the muck and come out a stronger person in the end.”
“I hear you. I just don’t know if I believe you.”
“Fair enough. We’ll keep working and see what develops.”